Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

biases

I’m reading the first volume of David Bromwich’s projected two-volume intellectual biography of Edmund Burke, and it’s fantastic. A magnificent piece of scholarship, about which I hope to have more to say. But in my typically perverse way, I’m going to devote this post to a disagreement — though not to be ornery, I promise. I have a constructive point to make.

One of the chief purposes of Bromwich’s book, it seems to me, is to rescue Burke from those who praise him, especially conservatives. (“No serious historian today would repeat the commonplace that Burke was the founder of modern conservatism” — no serious historian, though I fear that serious historians are defined as those who don’t say that Burke was the founder of modern conservatism.) So any of Burke’s statements that might confirm a conservative or generally traditionalist reading get some careful scrutiny from Bromwich, which in general is, I think, a good thing: conventional wisdom should always get doubled scrutiny.

But what about Burke’s religious beliefs? Here’s a noteworthy passage from Bromwich’s “Introduction”: 

Replying once to a question about his religious beliefs, Burke said he was a Christian “much from conviction; more from affection.” The remark is open to various readings. I take it to imply that for him, ordinary feelings such as trust, though they have a Christian correlative, themselves supply a sufficient groundwork of moral conduct. 

Try though I might, I can see absolutely nothing in Burke’s statement to warrant Bromwich’s inference. Burke doesn’t say anything there about trust, about ordinary feelings, about moral conduct or the grounds thereof. In fact, if you look at the original letter (in Volume VI of The Correspondence of Edmund Burke), he’s not even describing his own beliefs per se: the complete sentence is “I am attached to Christianity at large, much from conviction; more from affection.” The context is reflection on the denominational divisions among Christians, something an Irishman could scarcely not have thought about. And Burke’s point is, quite obviously I think, that his “attachment” to Christianity — something distinct from belief in its teachings — is supported in two ways: first by rational conviction, and second, and to a greater degree, through the testimony of his affections. It is a statement about the grounds of attachment, not about the foundations of moral conduct. 

So why does Bromwich read it the way he does? It seems to be a pre-emptive strike against any claim that Burke’s Christian convictions are essential to his thought. If there is a “sufficient groundwork” for morals outside the framework of Christian teaching, then Christian teaching can be largely set aside in an intellectual biography of Burke, even if it provides a “correlative” to beliefs held on other grounds. 

Yet Bromwich concludes his Introduction by quoting another passage from Burke’s letters that seems to cast doubt on this dismissal of Christianity. To a young woman who had protested against his prosecution of the East India Company for its maltreatment of Indians, Burke wrote, “I have no party in this business, my dear Miss Palmer, but among a set of people, who have none of your lilies and roses in their faces, but who are images of the great Pattern as well as you or I. I know what I am doing; whether the white people like it or not.” Though Bromwich seems not to notice, Burke is grounding his political action in the Christian and Jewish teaching that all human beings are made in the image of God: even the darkest-skinned people “are images of the great Pattern.” It is his conviction of the universal imago Dei that drives Burke’s attempts to bring gross injustice before the judgment of the Law. 

I think that in this case Bromwich fails to see the importance of Christianity to Burke because he is not especially interested in it himself; whereas I see the importance of it because I am both interested in and knowledgable about the subject. Among other things, this incident should be a reminder of how our own inclinations, our own biases, can lead us to shape writers and thinkers we love in our own image. Though I think I have shown that on this one matter Bromwich has misread Burke and I have read him correctly, if I were to write an intellectual biography of Burke I would run a significant danger of over-emphasizing his Christianity. If I were going to write a really first-rate book about Burke I would always need to be on guard against that tendency. 

Similarly, Edward Mendelson and I have had many conversations over the years about W. H. Auden’s religious beliefs and thoughts, and while we agree on much, we sometimes don’t — and when we differ, almost invariably my reading of Auden bends towards my theological inclinations, while Edward’s reading bends towards his. (Oddly enough, the fact that Edward knows five times more about Auden than I ever will does not incline me to defer to his judgment in these matters.)   

E. B. White once wrote, "All writing slants the way a writer leans, and no man is born perpendicular, although many men are born upright” — a lovely line, but it’s not how you’re born, it’s how you discipline yourself that counts. Pulling yourself towards the perpendicular you know you’ll never quite reach requires a constant struggle. I would like to say that I achieve such constancy; but I don’t. 

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